Archives For Early Church

acts-2-42In his sequel to the Gospel story, Luke reports that after the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost Jesus’ community of disciples:

“…devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home* and ate their food with glad and generous* hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” 

In the immediate aftermath of Pentecost, the Spirit’s anointing manifested itself in the believers sharing their prayers, bread and money with one another in a community of faith.

But is this, I wonder, meant to be a good thing?

Does Luke intend for us to see here in Acts 2 a blueprint for how we should do Church?

Typically theologians and preachers romanticize the Church of Acts 2. It’s there that we find the closest approximation of the ‘true Church.’ I know I’m guilty of unrealistically lauding Acts 2 as the ideal after which today’s Church should strive to embody.

Not only is the Acts 2 model unrealistic, I now wonder if it’s even a good, faithful model of the Church Jesus intended. After all, a community of believers sharing their possessions together, eating together, gathering together, teaching and praying and fellowshipping together just may entail too much togetherness.

What if the Acts 2 Church about which preachers so often wax poetic was actually a contravention of Jesus’ final commandment?

To take the Gospel to the very ends of the earth.

As easily as one can romanticize the Acts 2 Church, it’s just as easy to view it as a static, inward-focused community- both static and stationary, camped out in Jerusalem.

Maybe what we’re supposed to see in Acts 2, especially when contrasted with the rest of Acts’ unfolding, is not a romantic ideal but the caution that Christian community is not an end in itself.

In fact, I’ve come to think that a better reading of Acts understands the actual birth of the Church, in the sense of the community of disciples living up to and living out their calling, happening in Acts 8.

It’s not until Stephen’s bold ministry in Acts 6 and 7 provokes persecution and eventually martyrdom that the disciples disperse beyond their community.

It’s in fleeing that the disciples inadvertently find their former calling: to be a missionary people, a community on the move.

If this is a fair reading of Acts then I think it follows to say that Christians do not seek community as an end in itself but rather community is the result of us seeking other, larger ends.

We build community not for its own sake; we build it incidentally, as our hearts and energies are captured by the greater cause of proclaiming the Gospel message

The anthropologist Victor Turner distinguished between ‘community’ and what he labeled ‘communitas.’

Whereas ‘community’ can be described: as something to be built, as inward-focused, centered on encouraging one another and creating a safe space, Turner says ‘communitas’ is the experience of deeper bonds, support and relationships of people who undergo a shared ordeal.

What Turner labels ‘communitas’ is what people on mission trips often experience as the ‘spiritual high’ of their time serving the poor. With a cause bigger than ourselves, community just sort of happens on its own.

Communitas is only experienced by taking risks together, suffering together, and working together for a cause greater than the community itself.

In other words, when it comes to the ideal Church Turner would have you think of Saving Private Ryan more so than Acts chapter 2. Too many churches miss this experience of ‘communitas’ for no other reason than that they avoid shared ordeals. They opt for a safe, secure environment. Indeed they make a safe, secure environment their goal.

Alan Hirsch explains ‘communitas’ this way:

“…it is a community infused with a grand sense of purpose; a purpose that lies outside of its current internal reality…It’s the kind of community that happens to people in actual pursuit of a common vision of what could be. It involves movement and it describes the experience of togetherness that only really happens among a group of people actually engaging in a mission outside itself.”

 

 

 

catacomb art - 1Today it’s customary, even cliche, to observe how the cultural situation of Christians in the 21st century most resembles Christians in the early centuries under the Roman Empire. What’s meant by this is that the Church exists after Christendom in a post- Christian culture where the faith is suspect by many in society and certainly not shared by many more.

Few would deny that today there exists a strong sentiment of our losing our ‘traditional’ culture. It’s not always clear that what’s being lost is Christian culture so much as a particular form of Christianized national culture; nonetheless, it’s true that for Christianity not only to survive but to thrive in the next century it must discern how to impact the culture in ways different from the past.

I believe the early church provides us lessons in this regard. Today most U.S. Christians (especially Protestants and especially United Methodists) exist in rural and suburban areas. Christianity as an urban social presence is almost unheard of. And while Christians have done an extensive job at building parallel institutions in media and education (Christian music etc) they no longer exercise a strong influence in the institutions that drive, determine and change our culture.

What the early church teaches us, I believe, is that if the Church is to impact and change our culture and the world in the 21st century it must do the same things the Church did in the first century.

That is, it should continue to offer a lived alternative to the values of the wider world.

In large part, we’re already doing this.

What the early church also did, however, was engage the long-term process of nurturing disciples who could engage the culture and become leaders of it- a 21st century version of paideia.

In a time of declining church membership and loss of visible stature, it’s common to hear church leaders bemoan how we don’t know what it means to be faithful in this changing context. Ironically, what it means today is what it meant then.

Check out this description of Christians from a letter written before much of your New Testament.

“Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric lifestyle….

While they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship.”

“They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign.

They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are `in the flesh,’ but do not live `according to the flesh.’ They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws.”

“They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect.

When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life….Those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility.”

“In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians throughout the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but is not of the body; likewise Christians dwell in the world, but are not of the world.”

– Letter to Diognetus (2nd c)

imagesI’m digesting, having recently finished it, Reza Aslan’s bestselling, mud-in-your-eye-to-Fox News- book, Zealot.

Sadly, Aslan’s book reveals more about the latent anti-Islamic temper of the American political-media establishment than it does about New Testament studies.

When it comes to how Americans view Muslims with an abiding suspicion, Aslan’s book- or the reception to it- speaks volumes.

When it comes to how scholars understand that other guy from the Middle East, JC, Aslan’s book merely rehashes 19th century scholarship.

One of the truly annoying features of books like Aslan’s is that they buttress the prevalent liberal assumption that the INSTITUTIONAL CHURCH complicated, theologized and ruined the simple message of Jesus, the Rabbi of Compassionate Love.

Claims of Jesus’ divinity, resurrection, incarnation, preexistence et al were all added on later, it’s assumed, by power-broking philosophers.

Not only is that too simple to be true.

It’s also so simplistic it’s actually counter-intuitive.

Early Christianity’s small population meant few people knew much about them. What was ‘known’ was that Christians practiced ritual initiations and ceremonies that sounded like cannibalism and infanticide. They were known to have eccentric beliefs that ran counter to Roman virtue and refused to participate to venerate imperial gods.

For these reasons they were labeled unpatriotic and atheists.

Put more positively, Christians early on were known for what was visible (not behind the closed doors of worship) about them.

Namely:

They practiced what seemed to Romans like a conservative sexual ethic, marrying and practicing monogamy.

They practiced nonviolence, insisting converts resign military commissions.

They cared for widows, orphans, lepers, the poor and ‘rescued’ newborns ‘exposed’(an ancient equivalent of abortion) by Romans.

In fact, over time Christianity compelled ordinary people to such acts of boldness, compassion and virtue challenged dominant Roman attitudes about virtue and class. Romans, owing to Greek philosophy, believed virtue could only cultivated by years of training and education and, as such, belonged to the realm of the wealthy.

Even the emperor Julian, no friend to the faith, lamented how “it is a disgrace that these impious Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well.”

A pertinent question to ask is what motivated such bold, potentially dangerous, culturally counterintuitive acts among Christians?

It’s fashionable today to praise Jesus as a teacher and person and even to wish to emulate his life while at the same time disavowing the theological claims which have supposedly grown up around him.

For this reason it’s often assumed that earliest Christianity, and hence the purest expression of it, was focused on Jesus life and teaching, that understandings of his divinity and worship of him as God-incarnate were later developments and, accordingly, are for modern people optional.

The reality is the opposite.

As the liturgical sections of the Didache illustrate, the very earliest Christians were making very sophisticated claims about Jesus’ identity. And one should wonder why it would be any other way.

To assume that the early Christians risked their lives and the Empire’s wrath because they believed ‘compassion would change the world’ is facile.

It’s much easier to suppose that with high christological claims comes greater focus on embodying the Gospels’ teachings.

In other words:

the early Christians practiced Jesus’ teaching so thoroughly because they were convinced the One who said them was God. 

As any Mennonite will tell you, committed as they are to nonviolence as THE witness to the truth of Cross and Resurrection, there’s no way you’re following this guy very far if you’re not convinced he’s God.

That’s why, as Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, Christians should live in such a way that MAKES NO SENSE if Jesus Christ is NOT raised from the dead. 228958_10150729303960096_564145095_20288493_4614542_n

Thank God, Reza Aslan to the contrary, some Christians did.